I’ve been to plenty of dinner parties. The gatherings have varied widely in menu and decor. They’ve been held at fancy restaurants, in private homes and public parks, under domes and even at the top of a Ferris wheel. But a tiny dinner party hosted by artist Tom Brown was by far the most memorable.
The pop-up took place in the back of Inner City Brewing, just outside of downtown Calgary. A dozen of us bought tickets to share a long table that was pretty much the only human-scaled element of the experience. It was set with delicate wide-rimmed ceramic plates not much bigger than my thumbnail, and knives, forks and spoons no more than an inch long.
As guests arrived, Brown – whose work primarily focuses on what he calls handmade, functional miniatures – quietly prepped ingredients with a (tiny) hand-forged steel knife on a (tiny) end-grain cutting board as we cooed over the kitchen tools he had laid out for us to admire. There were minuscule wire whisks, tongs and wooden spoons, a box grater, muffin tins, a slap chop that required no more than a single-fingered tap to break down a bit of green onion and even a hinged springform pan with a removable bottom. Beside him, smoke curled from his functional miniature smoker, fuelled by kindling that resembled full-sized firewood. A diminutive deep fryer stood ready to brown latkes.
Miniature works of art are not new. Small-scale books, paintings, dioramas and replicas have been created since the Middle Ages. The format delivers the kind of escapism that have made dollhouses a childhood favourite for just as long, drawing kids and grown-ups out of their real-life surroundings into detailed dreamscapes. “[Miniatures] make us aware of our size, and of our physicality in the space we’re in,” says Brown.
In the social media era, the downsized format also seems perfectly suited to feeding our imagination around food. Instagram accounts such as Tiny Chef and Tiny Kitchen by Tastemade have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers. For Brown, who has over 20,000 fans following his feed @tombrowncreates, the format works because it connects culinary curiosity with an interest in craftsmanship. “I think miniature represents a return to kitsch, and old ways – both of making and style – which I see playing out in the world a little bit right now,” he says.
Brown’s tiny dinner parties won’t fill you up, but that’s not the point. “It reawakens you to your existence as a human being,” he says. “You’re so used to your everyday surroundings that you don’t notice them any more. Art serves to snap you out of it.” The miniature approach mimics the heightened awareness created through other forms of high concept food such as molecular gastronomy and nouveau cuisine. “Restaurants like Alinea and the French Laundry, who deconstruct food to such an extent that you have essentially a completely new experience, are an excellent example of the idea of anti-environment and why it’s a useful concept,” he says. “Anti-environment” was a term used by Canadian media scholar, Marshall McLuhan, to describe how art can reconnect you to your surroundings.
Brown graduated from the Alberta College of Art & Design in 2015 and has a day job working for a food rescue program. With no engineering or construction background, he approaches making each new kitchen tool and serving utensil like a puzzle to be solved, learning the skills necessary to make a ceramic burr for a miniature, functional coffee and pepper grinder, or how to blow glass into tiny stemmed wine goblets. With a rudimentary understanding of electrical engineering, he was able to make a nichrome heating element for a popcorn machine to pop tiny kernels of sorghum. He built 37 different prototypes of his alcohol-fuelled gas stove, partly to tweak the functionality, partially to nail down the aesthetic.
For his tiny projects, Brown settled on a 1/6 scale, ensuring all his items are relative to each other and provide a balance between miniaturization and functionality. While most miniature works are imitative replicas and merely visual, Brown insists on using his objects like their full-sized inspirations. Size matters but so does creating something that works.
At the dinner, the reduced scale had the effect of making us pay closer attention to details that may have otherwise gone unnoticed (a crowd favourite was the teensy pretzel display case that resembled the kind you’d see in a gas station or bar, glowing with the warmth of a heat lamp). “What I love about the miniature is that it reawakens you to your existence as a human being, within a different context,” he said as we spread mustard on our bite-sized pretzels and clinked inch-tall beer steins cast out of a slurry of clay and water.
The act of cooking and eating – smelling the food simmering on the stove, hearing the food sizzle and being in the kitchen as Brown slices and sautés – takes the experience beyond parody. “One of the most satisfying elements of working in miniature is eating the miniature food,” he says. “And having the true experience of ingesting a small version of something."
Following the pint-sized cooking performance, we all sat down to a meal of borscht, pierogi, schnitzel, latkes and Black Forest cake. Brown smoked tiny handmade sausages, fried latkes in the deep fryer with just a few tablespoons of oil, and carved tiny filets of oyster mushroom to make the schnitzel. Its texture at that scale was surprisingly similar to pork, which he says would have been too sinewy to resemble itself in miniature.
As the courses wrapped up, small stacks of dishes piled up in the sink of his original portable kitchen. We may have still been hungry, but our sense of wonder was stuffed.
Prop styling by Wilson Wong and Suzanne Campos for P1M.ca.
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